PostNL is Becoming a Tech-driven Logistical Company with Mendix
PostNL is a leading postal company in the Netherlands. In 2020, they shipped an average of 8.1 million mail items per day–including 1.1 million daily parcels–throughout the Netherlands and Belgium. Their 2020 annual revenue was €3.2 billion.
PostNL was one of the first in their industry to embrace cloud usage. They have also been a low-code user and a Mendix client since 2010, so they have consistently shown a willingness to embrace cutting-edge technology.
However, to continue to differentiate their service, PostNL is transitioning itself to a digital-first organization, using low-code to help power that transformation. Chris Neuteboom, Platform Lead with PostNL, and Sophie Karis, Community Lead, PostNL, joined Rob Versluis and Andrew Whalen from Mendix to discuss their journey.
Digitizing PostNL from the Ground up
Before this shift, PostNL’s IT and development practice was 100% outsourced to several different service providers, including Mendix. Neuteboom described “[we] have [Mendix] as a platform for custom-building applications in our logistical supply chain for mission-critical systems in orchestration and in order management.” The biggest application consists of nearly 70 apps that process 1.1 million parcel orders every day.
The leadership team at PostNL realized, though, that with customers relying increasingly on digital communication, a change in PostNL’s operating model was needed to ensure that they could continue to meet customer expectations. In a recruiting video aimed at software engineers, CIO Marcel Krom described PostNL as “changing from a directing culture to an engineering culture.” He added, “The quality of services depends directly on the quality of software.”
To do this, PostNL has committed to a complete transformation of their offerings, leading with digital tools created by a newly-built, in-house engineering team. As Krom stated, “Our company will change from a company run by people, supported by computers, to a company run by computers, supported by people.”
A large part of this transformation is building an in-house Mendix development team. They defined their key ingredients for success as people, community, and platform.
Finding the Right Makers
PostNL recognized that they would need a strong development team to drive their ambition. However, Karis pointed out that PostNL was not necessarily a natural destination for software engineers: “People are not really familiar with the fact that we are transforming into a tech driven logistical company.” So, they set out with strategies of outreach and partnership.
They started a recruitment campaign driven by messaging from IT Director Gerrie de Jonge and Marcel Krom, PostNL’s CIO, painting a vision of what the future of PostNL will be.
PostNL also partnered with an organization named Motopp. Motopp specializes in retraining and placement for people who are having difficulty finding employment in the Netherlands. As Karis noted, “Motopp offers them a traineeship where they can become a Mendix developer.” PostNL reviewed Motopp candidates and graduation projects and has recruited 5 trainees to work for PostNL in various Mendix teams.
Finally, PostNL looked within their employee base for employees who might be interested in IT. The simplicity of learning low-code coupled with existing knowledge of PostNL’s business means those employees are well-suited to advance the organization’s digital ambitions.
Building Community from Scratch
The second ingredient for PostNL’s success plan was to build community. “There is a need to share knowledge so that you are aware of what other people and other teams are working on and that they know each other, that they are there to approach each other,” Neuteboom described. Whalen added, “Building a strong community is essential to success.”
Community would help PostNL’s teams to more easily fix problems and share resources. “You can learn from each other how to create solutions that work in your particular environment,” Whalen noted. “It’s connecting to data or APIs, user interfaces, or maybe just navigating the maze of your own IT organization.” Just as importantly, a community would allow engineering teams to share and celebrate successes.
Karis, as community lead, took on the responsibility. Her first move was to build out a charter defining shared purpose, expressed through ideation, development, and operations.
Karis also organized monthly meetups, where teams could come together to share knowledge and stories. The next was to create workgroups, which would bring together colleagues from different teams to work on specific projects designed to improve workflows across the organization.
An early success came from an onboarding workgroup. This group came together to help new team members get started within PostNL. New hires would be presented with checklists, as well as an overview of the different teams, members, and applications. These workgroups help to build the sense of community and, noted Versluis, “the enthusiasm and the commitment to actually create.”
Speeding up and Standardizing Development
The final ingredient alongside people and community is the platform itself. For PostNL, having the right structure and low-code development flow would be critical for short-term and long-term success. Mendix helped by guiding PostNL with an app factory framework.
“It’s a framework to structure and scale your Mendix development,” Whalen described. “Instead of just leaving it over to everyone to think, ‘Well, what should we do next?’ we have assigned posts and markers to help us along the way. And so you can think of certain topics like testing, operations, UI.”
Setting up this framework provided another good opportunity to use workgroups. Previously, testing was not standardized, with different teams using different processes and methodologies. To define a consistent way of working, a workgroup formed to improve testing across all Mendix teams. The team looked at the different tools and practices being used across the organization, which ranged from some teams self-managing to some not doing testing at all. From here, the team recommended a single tool and workflow to be implemented across all development teams. This brings efficiency and scale to PostNL’s operations, as well as an additional layer of quality and security. Further workgroups are coming together to continue to improve how the teams work and how their platform operates.
Laying the Groundwork
As PostNL has moved along their path, they’ve discovered two key elements that would likely apply to other organizations in a similar situation: building community and getting suppliers involved in that community. “We encouraged people to get to know each other. We asked for feedback, what we could improve,” Neuteboom stated. “Also the ’Why’ is very important, that you explain every time to the people why [a community] is important.” Building suppliers into that community further strengthens the chain as the supplier can better understand the needs of the larger organization.
Building this sense of community right from the beginning has led to stakeholder buy-in and has increased each developer’s sense of ownership into the work that they’re doing. The response has been overwhelmingly positive.
“We’ve laid a foundation,” Neuteboom said. “The community has to flower itself. It needs to grow because people experience that it’s necessary. It’s fun.”